RIDOT: ‘Indian burial ground’ beneath proposed toll location delays federal sign-off

Providence Viaduct

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Rhode Island Department of Transportation has successfully obtained federal approval for 13 planned truck tolls in the state, but a 14th is yet to be approved pending an expected agreement with the Narragansett Indian Tribe over ancient burial grounds, RIDOT Director Peter Alviti said Wednesday.

“Many, many years ago in the area where the [Providence] Viaduct is, there were various historic areas of significance to the Indian nation existing there,” Alviti said, referring to the spin that takes I-95 by the Providence Place mall. “We’re working out the details.”

The comments about the tribal lands were made during a news conference announcing the signing of 13 Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) with the Federal Highway Administration, signifying that the truck tolls planned on state highways to fund Gov. Gina Raimondo’s RhodeWorks plan are legal under federal law.

The 14th proposed toll would be built on the Viaduct. The bridge, which is behind schedule on its own repairs, is on top of some “Indian burial grounds,” Alviti said, and “environmental mitigation” needs to be done before the federal government will sign off on that final toll.

RIDOT has agreed to provide the tribe with parcels of land in Narragansett and other parts of South County in exchange for any incidental damage caused to the land underneath the viaduct, Alviti said. RIDOT spokesperson Charles St. Martin said this is a common practice for the department, considering the many acres of tribal grounds in the state. St. Martin confirmed the deal with the Narragansett tribe was struck in 2013, but has not been finalized.

“We’re well on the path to doing that,” Alviti explained, adding that he fully expected the transfer of lands to be completed. He said the federal government will sign the final toll MOU once the situation is resolved.

John Brown, the Narragansett Indian Tribe’s historic preservation officer, painted a different picture, acknowledging an ongoing issue going back “four or five years,” but telling Eyewitness News he had not heard from the state recently about the land deal.

“It was my impression that whatever needed to be signed, was signed,” Brown said. The tribe is currently fractured after a dispute over their chief’s residency.

The tribal deal does not affect repairs to the Viaduct bridge itself, St. Martin said. The bridge has been under construction for years, and is behind schedule due to issues with the foundation, not issues with the burial ground.

In the meantime, RIDOT is moving forward with construction of the 13 other toll gantries. Now that federal approval has been secured, Alviti says the department will issue Requests for Proposals (RFPs) in November in order to hire a construction company to build the tolls. He has said he hopes to be tolling large trucks by 2018 at the latest.

The money from the truck tolls is slated to fund repairs on more than 150 bridges. Truckers have said they’ll either boycott driving in the state, or will consider litigation. RIDOT has said the tolls will cost an average of $3 each, with a $20 cap to cross the state.